Mechajammer‘s Calitana is a grungy world stuffed with the dregs of a crime-ridden society. The only things scrubbing away at the grime is the unsustainable cycle of corruption and death, that and the fires from the open rioting and fighting that floods the streets. Calitana is already imploding, and it’ll soon be exploding too; You’ve got to get the hell out.
How I describe Mechajammer to people has changed a lot over the last while, and only a part of that is due to the major patches that have already been pushed live to fix some of the launch issues. Its influences, which include the likes of Escape from New York and The Terminator, run deep through it. However, it’s two old SNES games that it really reminds me of and that I compare it to the most. There are some similarities between the two games, Shadowrun and Syndicate, both take place in worlds that are inherently broken, operated and run by faceless corporations who no longer care for the humans that make them up, and who thrive on chaos and violence. There’s also a theme of transhumanism, be that the science or the practice. All of this carries through to Mechajammer, with its mutants, droids, chaotic gangs and syndicates.
Mechajammer‘s world is better realised than both of those old worlds, in fact, it feels like somebody has taken those old games and — ironically, in the case of Shadowrun (SNES) — created a wide, cRPG world within those settings. Shadowrun‘s murky streets and alleyways occasionally pockmarked with a train station, office or club; and Syndicate‘s wide-seeming city districts, have been exploded into a city that feels both dense and hollow, both alien and strangely familiar at the same time.
Calitana as a planet is broken. It floods with homeless beggars who cluster in swarms around districts, flooding them at different times of the day. Its roads are either streaked with vehicles or burning with fighting gangs and oppressive government forces. There’re no middle-grounds there, it is one extreme or the other, empty or full, and that carries through almost every element of Mechajammer‘s design. I’ve played a little over 30 hours of it now, and while some of the earliest hours were expended on bugs that are now fixed, the whole thing can be whittled down to either extreme of wondering where I was and why this area was like it was, or being incredibly tense in the dangerous, imploding city.
At one point I was exploring slightly outside of an area that I had grown familiar with, I was popping locks, busting doors, and crushing rats and other pests when I happened upon a cordoned-off area. I ended up following it under the city, through overgrown wastes and past mutated dogs until I popped up to the side of a bottling plant. I snuck in — feeling completely out of my depth — and wound up making an alliance with a gang leader. It felt purely procedural, like it was a situation that was spat out by a machine, but the whole design of the city is deliberately spacious and flooded with shortcuts and paths that you simply have to learn or happen upon. That lack of guidance was uncanny, and still feels quite alien, but thinking back I can fondly remember a time where I’d put weeks into a game because I didn’t have another to play… I learned my way around Ahm, and The Hub, and Shadowrun‘s Seattle through repetition. For example, I can tell you that just outside of the island you find yourself trapped on at the start of Mechajammer, you can find a loan shark, a shut-down garage, and that if you travel slightly South (assumed South, as you have no compass, but the map reveals an exit as ‘North’ towards the jungle) then you’ll find a box stuffed with a near-indestructible, two-handed sword. I can now tell you that the droid kit combined with a trash can lid can make one of the best companions in the game, but that you should definitely have a laser-gun one, or two, as they’re amazing at lockpicking…
It’s a game that really, really demands a 500-page strategy guide full of a beefy tips section and a pull-out map of the city; Maybe it would also have a physical copy of the literal decoder-wheel item that you end up using to decode transport links earlier on in the game.
What I’m saying, really, is that there’s an incredible amount of depth there, and it’s such a shame that the start of the game — as, perhaps with most open-world games — is so railroading in nature. In fact, it performs a cardinal sin that we see a lot of other games that cite freedom as a core tenet do. It gives players freedom in character design but railroads them through a couple of scenarios that are better solved by particular builds.
In the case of Mechajammer, the starting area is its greatest foe, onboarding for open-world games is hard, of course. In the initial area you snoop around, drop a bridge and go straight into gang territory, there’s a computer that can drop further bridges, but the password changes each time you play and is carried by a boss — who in turn also has a key to access better gear. The problem is, for all of your stealth speccing, you have to kill this guy, and guns are a noisy solution that will draw attention. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t kill him in melee, and as I was alone (because I’d not put points into charm, and there was no option to build droids) there wasn’t some greater strategy available. All of Mechajammer‘s messaging said that there were multiple routes, and that non-violence was definitely an option… but there were no precariously dangling pianos nearby, and the stun grenade didn’t cause the boss to drop his coded message. I spent far too long trying to find ways to get the bridges down, I lured him to other areas, tried to get other creatures and people to kill him, I raided his whole room and complex until he was the last unit standing… killing every other living thing on the island through stealth knockouts and tactful, timely head-whacks, but, it turned out, I still needed to knock him dead in order to get the code.
In that early build, even having killed everybody, I didn’t stand a chance against him as I’d not specced for weapons, and — at that time — a shot from a gun, when unskilled, would hurt you more than the person the bullet might hit. This is fixed now, thankfully, as are a few other things. But I spent a lot of time confused about what seemed like narrowing variety in my routes through the game. Also, enemies respawned between loads, meaning that before I learned that I had to kill the chap, rather than just sneak past him, I had to repeatedly eradicate the same folx, like some strange groundhog-day loop.
There were other things too. Mechajammer‘s world feels like it started as an empty template for a world which was had content heavily layered over it and then over it again. It’s a very smart way to worldbuild, but does mean that certain things — like messages on the wall — can feel like much bigger clues than they are. Things like U?i?t?ty B?i?di?g can just mean ‘Utility Building’ not that ‘tliuuln’ is a password or a clue for a password. Sometimes, through its being incredibly clever at times, it can make you think that it is being much more subtle than it is. I started building the previously built decoder wheel because I didn’t realise that the object had been placed in my inventory to view — I noted down the letters that the gang goons were muttering, thinking that they were spelling out a password. Clearly, I made it even harder for myself than it needed to be at times. But, when a game gives you a notebook, and warns you that it won’t be layering a map with a quest log, or quest markers, you can only assume so much.
That same starting area can now take me less than five minutes to blast through with a new build, but I definitely spent over two hours kiting that boss around and rustling through every building. But, for all of my complaints — perhaps like those who died against the rats early in Oblivion, or got taken out by the radroaches just outside the vault in the first Fallout — once through that early starting area, I was fascinated at how much there was to do as long as a little caution was applied. I do, to be candid, feel that the intro to the game could use a classic character bait-and-switch by giving you another character from the crew who then gets wiped out, only to cut to your created character; That or make the code to lower the bridges simply not require you to directly defeat the boss (even though a lot of Mechajammer‘s most memorable narrative revolves around the power vacuum caused by his death).
But, I’m getting off-topic. Once you’re through that short, starting section the messaging that you can almost entirely stealth your way through the game suddenly becomes incredibly viable. In fact, it opens up massively. I’ve played a couple of hours in a variety of different builds now; my stealthy build is doing great when I do hit I hit hard, but I mostly scurry away through the alleyways when things go awry, and try again later; My mechanist build is a powerhouse, with skilled droids replacing my need to do much more than making more droids; My charmer character always has dozens of beggars and scamps out taking the hits so that they don’t have to. Each of these characters feels wholly different, and while my mechanist has droids to do the hacking and lockpicking, I’m sure there are potential builds based around those as primary points — and, after you’ve won over a faction, recruiting can be done by the less charming option of hiring with money, rather than your natural charisma.
While it’s more than possible to go it alone, if you do that then you’ll need to steer clear of crowds. The combat is incredibly unforgiving when you’re swamped by enemies, although its nature — which is described as “simultaneous turn-based combat to create real-time tactics with the precision of turn-based controls” — does give you the time to consider dashing away to regroup. The combat system feels like the six-second turn of other cRPGs, but once you start learning how long certain actions take it becomes more than possible to shoot ahead of somebody and catch them with the bullet, or to lob a grenade at the exact point where people will be in a turn and a half. If you add your own crew into the mix, be that four individual units, each in their own group, or over thirty allies dumped into one large cluster, it gets really chaotic and fun.
Perhaps one of my favourite things about Mechajammer, aside from the depth of the setting and the variety of play options, is how it still holds up under the different extremes of party-play. Syndicate complexes, city roads and the deadly jungle are all massively different spaces, but squad combat — which is stripped down to telling groups to target certain enemies, or move to certain areas — holds up really well, and when combined with traps and explosives, feels very dynamic and pleasing. To work through a space with a gang at your back feels phenomenal, but taking the solo-stealth approach also feels brilliant, as does taking a smaller, more specialised group of others… in fact, for a short while I had a single unit in each of the different groups, and was playing the game like a party-based RPG. All of these methods felt great, and I don’t think I’ve played a game that does it so well. I was worried that it would feel sloppy, like Syndicate (which I mentioned earlier) and its ‘swarm of followers’ style of leadership, but was delighted to find it was vastly, vastly better.
It’s a game that would have benefitted from launching into Early Access or spending a bit of time with consecutive waves of testers. However, Whalenought’s last title also had a bumpy launch but wound up like a completely different (and much better) game within just a few months of heavy fixes. It’s hard to expect a team of two to be able to thoroughly test a game, especially one that delivers on so many different playstyles, however, for all of Mechajammer‘s launch woes, it’s already ten times better after just a few patches. I’m really looking forward to seeing more of Calitana, and maybe even more of the setting, in the future.
Mechajammer is available now on PC and Mac.